Openly Straight/Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg
Published by: Arthur A. Levine Books
Openly Straight: Amazon
Honestly Ben: Amazon
Reviewed by: Alex
What to Expect: A duology about do-overs, labels, love, and seriously messing up. In that order. Featuring a once-and-future gay boy, an introverted jock-philosopher. In supporting roles, their friends, who range from tone-deaf cis-hets to a to one of the most endearing enbies I’ve met on the page.
(Openly Straight) Rafe is a normal teenager from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He’s won skiing prizes. He likes to write.
And, oh yeah, he’s gay. He’s been out since 8th grade, and he isn’t teased, and he goes to other high schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that’s important, all Rafe really wants is to just be a regular guy. Not that GAY guy. To have it be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time.
So when he transfers to an all-boys’ boarding school in New England, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret — not so much going back in the closet as starting over with a clean slate. But then he sees a classmate break down. He meets a teacher who challenges him to write his story. And most of all, he falls in love with Ben . . . who doesn’t even know that love is possible.
This witty, smart, coming-out-again story will appeal to gay and straight kids alike as they watch Rafe navigate feeling different, fitting in, and what it means to be himself.
(Honestly Ben) Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stay focused.
There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else…and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.
Once you come out of the closet, there’s no going back. Or, so they say. As if there aren’t people who forget what they might have done or been some time in the past, disavowing their own history. Even so, it’s generally accepted that coming out of the closet is a one-way deal that sometimes comes with a slew of life-changing events. Maybe life comes faster, from different angles. Maybe some doors closed when that one opened. Maybe they closed so softly they couldn’t be heard. Or, maybe they were slammed.
Enter Rafe, limited by the labels that come along with being out and proud. Those moments in the locker room, for example, could be…totally different if people know him as straight. When he goes to a boarding school where no one knows him as gay, he soon finds out they are. Not being gay is everything he wants it to be.
Thing is, he’s not exactly not-gay to everyone. His parents—avid PFLAG members—know. His BFF, Claire Olivia knows. And his English professor who runs the GSA knows. In these four people, he’s got people checking him, calling him out on behavior that is fundamentally dishonest, and waiting in the wings while he explores this new life, despite their warnings.
Rafe is a kid who has set himself up to bash against a wall. The people who have known and loved him see this happening. But he doesn’t. At the same time, they don’t see why he needs to proceed down this path, regardless of their warnings.
Which isn’t. There is no normal. Never. Ever. Rafe’s roommate Albie knows this, as does Albie’s BFF Toby, who susses right away that Rafe might not be straight. Even so, Toby accepts Rafe for who Rafe claims to be. And if there is an overarching message weaving through this set of books, that’s it: accept one another for where they are.
So, Rafe is at first not openly gay. Then, he is straight. Then, he has a girlfriend. But not really. But it’s easier to keep this story going even when he’s falling in love with Ben, introverted jock-philosopher with thighs that could probably crush a football. At first, Rafe is only in like. Most definitely like. Then, the uncertainty of whether the feeling is mutual. Then, it’s revealed they share a ‘higher’ love. Possibly. Regardless of what kind of love this is, Ben’s never had an experience like this. Ben is open, curious, exploring, authentic and Rafe knows that lying to him will end things badly. It’s the train wreck everyone predicts; there is no surprise save the size of the explosion.
Rather, implosion. Ben’s implosion. Ben who was totally betrayed and couldn’t believe he’d ever thought he might someone like Rafe. Add to this how he, too, wants normal. The same normal that doesn’t exist. Never. Ever. Ben’s story has a different tone than Rafe’s. For a start, Rafe had his teacher, his best friend Claire Olivia, and his parents to check him, Ben has no one. Not really. His family would not understand his current situation. His coach is laughably dense. His best friend? Turns out to be Rafe, the Unforgiven. Add being chosen as the newest school grant winner, for which he needs to maintain his academic and scholastic aptitude, and meeting Hannah, who is all he could ever ask for in a girlfriend.
The pressure is real and when something finally gives, the result is spectacular.
The more I think about this set of books, the more I appreciate them. They reference queer authors and history, along with examples of support groups—and of the ways they may not always be helpful even while life-saving. I love how Rafe’s privilege is called into question time and time again by almost everyone around him. It hurts watching him go through it but he’s forged into someone that makes a difference. I love how Ben, who calls out Rafe’s privilege, has his own privilege called out and learns to speak up.
In the background, the charming and ridiculous Toby finds his way through a secret relationship and a new gender identity. What unbelievably brave and marvelously weird character, appearing not to care about acceptance, all while spearheading it. In a parallel plot, the jocks at school get called out hazing and we get to see a gratifying shift of locker room culture. Finally, there’s a question of acknowledginghow a school hero might be cast in a different light than they might have wanted to be had they lived…and of the responsibility of sharing their true story when others like the well-known version better.
Konigsberg has done an amazing job of capturing the current generation of teens, at least as I perceive them. Okay—this is coming from someone not of this generation. But, from the outside, can I just say they give me hope? These are the teens who are changing the conversations we’re having, who aren’t afraid of going after people in power, who speak up for what they believe, who want this world to be safe. I see these people in this book and, I suppose, given the few reservations I have about how some of the topics have been dealt with, this is the highest compliment I can give.
What you may not like: As a self-identifying member of the B portion of LGBT, I struggled with Ben’s identity as “straight except for Rafe.” The guy had a bi uncle. Ben knew what bisexuality was before he and Rafe explored their mutual attraction. Furthermore, the author made it clear that bi-erasure was a thing and it was important to people around Ben that Ben didn’t do it. Whether he would eventually or get to identifying as bisexual, he did not do so by the end of this series—regardless of his relationship with a guy and being attracted to women. It was more important to Ben not to be forced into a box. I do acknowledge the importance of meeting a person where they are in their process over where they most likely ‘fit.’ That said, I’m not sure I’m okay with the way this was handled.
What you will love: The commitment to the gray spaces and for characters willing to go down the wrong path, accepting any and all consequences for what came their way. This was done with love and humor. Also…Toby.
And fake mustaches.
Alex claims to read more than any normal, healthy adult should though the rest of the Binge on Books team would beg to differ. You can read all of his reviews here.
Connect with Alex on Twitter: @Alex_deMorra